Monday, July 30, 2007


I found "Beckett" surprisingly boring for a movie with 12 Academy Award nominations.
A 1964 film, based on a play of the same name and starring Peter O'Toole (King Henry II) and Richard Burton (Thomas Beckett), the movie tells the classic story of Henry's attempt to increase his power base by appointing his close friend and chancellor to the post of archbishop of Canterbury. The move backfired as Beckett displayed unanticipated religious devotion and openly opposed the king's efforts to extend his control to include the church as well as the state.
I first encountered the story of Thomas Beckett in any significant length when I was in college and one of the student acting groups put on a performance of T.S. Elliot's "Murder in the Cathedral" in the college chapel. It's a great story, and of particular relevance today as it deals with the uneasy co-existence of church and state and what happens when they clash ... but I really couldn't get into this movie.
Without a doubt the main problem is the age of the film. Production values and our expectations of movies have changed considerably in the 43 years since "Beckett" first showed on the silver screen. Some movies -- like "The Ten Commandments," "Ben-Hur" and "Spartacus" -- have held up, but even they show their age. The spectacle and pagaentry that used to be a mainstay of these old movies, with thousands of extras and elaborate sets, have fallen by the wayside and contemporary audiences prefer movies with less spectacle and faster action.
And by faster action I don't mean car chases and gunfights. In "Beckett" the long pauses were excruciatingly painful, extended camera pans that consisted of nothing but people walking across the room, or boats crossing the English Channel while the music played and tried to seranade us to sleep.
All that said, there are many things I did enjoy about the movie. Peter O'Toole gave a command performance as Henry II as a perennially adolescent king, incapable of controlling his urges or exercising any manner of self-restraint. He yells at his wife, bullies his children, and when he discovers that his old drinking buddy won't go along with him is brutally torn between love for his friend and anger over what he sees as betrayal. This internal divide dogs him until finally, in a drunken fit that has involved yelling at his wife and mother and humiliating his son Henry III, he asks "Who will rid me of this troublesome archbishop?" -- which of course three knights overhear and take to interpret as a royal order.
The story, as always, was excellent. I'd be interested in seeing the play at some point.


Oberon said...

.......did you ever realize peter o'toole is a double phallic name?

Anonymous said...

I loved this film, of course I also have chosen films like Tokyo Story and Whales of August. Slow, despite America's preoccupation with getting around whatever is in front of it, can be beautiful. If you ever sit for a sesshin in a zendo, under strict silence, you suddenly get a new feel for the moment, and the kind of beauty it can provide - a moment to just enjoy as it passes in its unbridled splendor.


marauder said...

True, perhaps; still, there is a difference between a deliberate, plodding pace as in many character-driven movies, and simply packing a movie with shots of the scenery that have no apparent bearing on the scenes just passed or imminent.

I also must confess I don't really care for Burton's style of acting, though I realize he was regarded as one of the greats of his day. Too flat and unemotional, even in Beckett's death, and not exactly easy to identify with. He need not go for histrionics, but a little more feeling would have been reasonable in a man who was supposed to be the king's right hand in drunken debauchery and self-indulgence.